Ottawa·Analysis

Yasir Naqvi won't promise to release SIU report on Abdirahman Abdi's death

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi reiterated his commitment to transparency in policing issues, but stopped short of promising to release the Special Investigations Unit report on the death of Abdirahman Abdi.

Attorney general says he is committed to openness and transparency, but waiting for SIU review

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi speaks to reporters at an event in Ottawa on Aug. 10, 2016. (CBC)

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi has reiterated his commitment to transparency in policing issues, but stopped short of promising to release the Special Investigations Unit report on the death of Abdirahman Abdi.

The SIU is a civilian agency that reviews all cases of death, and other serious injury, involving police in Ontario. It is currently investigating Abdi's death that occurred last month after the Somali-Canadian had a violent encounter with police.

Naqvi acknowledged to reporters Wednesday that Abdi's death has been a "traumatic" event for the city, and added: "I am stating very categorically that I personally am, and have always been, very much committed to transparency and accountability."

However, Naqvi would not categorically promise that he would release the SIU report on Abdi's death when it is completed. On the other hand, he didn't refuse to release it either.

Equivocating is the modus operandi of politicians. But in this case, Naqvi's cautiousness may be justified — and there's reason to believe that at least some of the information will be made public.

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, died after an incident involving Ottawa police in late July. The province's Special Investigations Unit is investigating. (Supplied photo)
As the SIU reports to the Ministry of the Attorney General, Naqvi could decide to make Abdi's report public. Without explicitly saying so, Naqvi suggested that pre-disclosing that he'd release a report — something only done once in the SIU's 26-year history (more on that in a minute) — he could be seen to be influencing the investigation.

Would the SIU write its report differently if it knew it was being made public? Who knows. But Naqvi doesn't want to chance it.

"We're at the very early stages of an important SIU investigation," said Naqvi, adding that by law, there cannot be even "a moment of interference or influence on my part. So, I'm very mindful of that."

Coincides with independent review

But the larger issue may be the current independent review of the three agencies that oversee police conduct in the province — including the SIU — by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch. The judge is to provide the provincial government with recommendations on how to make the police oversight bodies more transparent. 

"We recognize that we really don't have clear guidance as to what circumstance (SIU) reports should be released or not," Naqvi said. "What are some of the privacy concerns, maybe, when no charges are being laid? And in order to deal with that issue prudently, we've asked a very reputable jurist to do consultations, to do his research, and to give us independent advice as to how to we deal with that issue."

It was actually the dismal handling of another high-profile SIU case that led to the Tulloch review.

In March, when the SIU found no wrongdoing by the Toronto police who shot Andrew Loku dead, it set off a maelstrom in the city that included public protests at Toronto police headquarters and the greensward of Queen's Park.

Ontario's Liberal government handled the file haphazardly.

Andrew Loku, 45, was shot by Toronto police in July 2015 after he refused to drop a hammer he was carrying. (Handout photo)
Then-attorney general Madeleine Meilleur (who has since retired from politics) admitted to not having read the SIU findings on the controversial shooting a month after the report was filed. Then she and Premier Kathleen Wynne said they would not release the report.

Less than two weeks later, however, under intense public pressure, the Liberals agreed to release the report and on the same day announced Tulloch's review of the three police watchdog groups.

But the SIU document was heavily redacted, with only nine of 34 pages being released. Those nine pages didn't include the name of the police officer who killed Loku, or any of the police or civilian witnesses interviewed. More importantly, the report didn't include the witnesses' statements, even anonymously.

Critics of the censored document rightly complained that they were no closer to understanding how the SIU came to its findings than when the report was still secret.

SIU report into Abdi's death likely months away

So Tulloch's review of how and what information in SIU reports can be made public can't come too soon.

Actually, it's coming March 31, 2017, with an interim report due sooner at the discretion of the judge. 

But that deadline may work in Naqvi's favour.

SIU investigations, especially those as serious as the one surrounding Abdi's death, can take months. Toronto's Loku died in July 2015 and the SIU report was filed the following March. Although all investigations are unique, it's reasonable to surmise that the case involving Adbi, who died in July of this year, will take a similar amount of time. 
A group holding a "Justice for Abdirahman Abdi" banner leads hundreds on a march from Somerset Park Square to the Ottawa police headquarters on Elgin Street. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Coincidentally, that brings us to the time when Tulloch's report is due.

As the MPP for Ottawa Centre — the riding where Abdi lived and died — Naqvi knows all too well the controversy that the Somali-Canadian man's death has caused. And this week's brouhaha over another Somali-Canadian man being hired as a political gesture to appease the critics of Abdi's death is just one indication that this issue isn't going away.

The attorney general has repeated how committed he is to transparency. Next March, we'll be better able to judge how true he is to that soundbite.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.